GREENSBORO When Market America founder and CEO Jim “JR” Ridinger closes the company’s Greensboro international convention held each August at the Greensboro Coliseum, he’s like a rock star. Loud music and pyrotechnics are the backdrop as he runs onto the stage to the applause of thousands.

“Make sure that the time you spend pays you for the rest of your life,” Ridinger sometimes says at the convention’s closer.

Those are words that echo from when he said them 26 years ago to Marc Ashley, a co-founder and chief operating officer of Market America.

“His passion is like none I’ve ever seen. Relentless passion. When he believes in something, there’s no way of getting in the way,” Ashley said.

Market America is a multimillion dollar product supplier and marketing company. Its Greensboro headquarters employs 650 people and ships 30,000 packages a week to all 50 states. It has distribution centers in 11 other countries. It has a web presence that holds a significant percentage of worldwide online sales.

And its glitzy conventions — like the one recently at the coliseum — attract thousands from around the world and celebrities like Jamie Foxx and Kim Kardashian.

“Through all the challenges we faced, there was never a time where we wanted to simply walk away from the business,” Ridinger said by email. “We had all contributed blood, sweat and tears to the business that we had built from the ground up. And when you have that level of deep emotional connection with and passion for what you’re building together, walking away just is not an option.”

Many in Greensboro don’t even realize Market America was founded and headquartered right here.

“After 25 years, we’re like the best kept secret in the area,” Ashley said.

The direct-sales company was founded in 1992 by Ridinger, Ashley and Ashley’s sister, Loren, who married Ridinger.

All are graduates of Page High School.

“We started a little company from a shoestring in a little home that was 1,500 square feet. Zero money,” Ashley recalled. “It’s sort of how we built the culture and the environment and the company. It’s where we came from.”

Ridinger, who was a finalist for North Carolina Entrepreneur of the Year in 1996, parlayed his previous sales experience with Amway into the vision of the company.

Market America began by direct-selling products such as cosmetics, nutritional supplements and home and auto products. But Ridinger’s vision of the company was greater than that.

First, he implemented what he called the UnFranchise business model in which distributors, or “entrepreneurs” as he calls them, operate independently following a specific plan. It’s a system he trademarked in 1995.

“From the inception, we knew we had an idea whose time had come,” Ridinger said. “We knew that we had a business model that empowered ordinary people to realistically succeed and achieve their goals.”

In 1994, the company went public.

In 2002, Ridinger had grown successful enough to buy back shares and the company became private.

Ridinger saw the possibility of a digital world years before the internet became a standard platform for marketing and selling.

Market America was a company waiting for the digital age. First there was MarketAmerica.com. Then in 2010, the company took a giant leap and purchased Shop.com from Microsoft.

Ridinger’s digital dream came to fruition.

“Let’s face it: Uber is essentially the largest taxi service in the world, and they don’t own a single taxi,” Ridinger said. “We look at the retail landscape in a similar way, and realize there’s an equally powerful opportunity for us as a global ecommerce powerhouse.”

Shop.com sells over 40 million products from several thousand merchants and partner stores. Market America distributors can set up their own shops on the site.

“It took 25 years for the technology to catch up to our original vision of interconnected shoppers who wield their collective buying power,” Ridinger said. “It had never been done before because no one had tried.”

The company is taking its digital strategy a step further by creating a virtual reality shopping mall.

The project is being developed at Market America’s Greensboro headquarters, a 165,000-square-foot building built in 2005 that houses web developers, call center and state-of-the-art distribution warehouse.

“You’ve got to adapt to what the customer wants,” Ashley said.

And the company is showing no signs of slowing down. The annual Greensboro convention is a testament to that. The event draws thousands who flood dollars into hotels and restaurants around town. Market America distributors from all over the world spend four days attending workshops, checking out new products, listening to motivational talks and waiting for the convention closer when Ridinger bursts onto the stage with the fury of an evangelist.

“It’s ... inspiring to think that a company that started with just a handful of entrepreneurs has now blossomed into a global powerhouse,” Ridinger said.

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Contact at 336-373-7145 or at carl.wilson@greensboro.com. Follow on Twitter at Short_OrdersNR and on Facebook.

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